"Hello?" asked Ryan, knocking on the door. The old shed wasn't much of a house. It was made out of a mix of wooden planks, and metal sheets, held together with rope, nails, and (in some places) dumb luck. The door was locked now, with two bricks half-submerged in holes at the base, and a plank of wood along the center. There were two windows, one on each side of the house. The sunlight came in from the right window in the morning, and in through the left one as it set. Near noon, it would light up the trails of dust, from cracks in the ceiling. Those would have been a problem, if there was any rain left to fall in. But, as it was, they were too small for any critters larger than a rat to get through, so there was no need to waste materials or effort repairing them. Dust and dirt and wind had joined forces, and, over time, taken away the original colors of the outside walls. In their place, now, was the exact same color as the dirt on the ground. From far away, one wouldn't even notice the shack. That would have been advantageous, once. But now, just about everybody who would want to know about the little house in the middle of the wastes knew about it. All the dirt on the walls did was to make it a bit harder to find. Four miles from civilization...or, at least, what passed as civilization anymore. It was a long walk to any shop in Mangil, usually about an hour and a half. So, there were crops growing in the rear. Corn, wheat, cabbage, some medicinal roots; essentially, anything that could be grown was being grown. There was water nearby - the small well was proof enough of that. If there wasn't, the well would have been torn down long ago. Such things were a sign of water, and a very thirsty man could be a dangerous man, especially when there was the revelation of no water at hand. Two brahmin walked around inside a pen, occasionally stopping to eat some weeds, or produce fertilizer to grow more weeds. All in all, as far as conditions in the wastes went, it was a good place. If it had been in an actual town, well...well, depending on how one viewed things, it could be better or worse in a town. The risks out in the wastes were a lot similar to the risks inside a city, except that there was a greater likelihood of animal attacks. Raiders, thieves, heartless bastards, they would have a field day with such a place. And that was just because of the view from the outside. If they knew what sort of things were on the inside, an attack wouldn't just be likely - it would be inevitable. But while few people knew what was inside, everybody who had an ear for stories knew who. Even the geckos, the rats, the various pestering creatures all strayed from that place. For humans, it was because of the tales. For critters, it was a subtle sense in the air. Both translated to danger. Both helped keep the place safe. Most of the time, at least. And so Ryan knocked on the door again. "Hey Shan, it's me!" he shouted, not sure if she was on the ground floor, or in the basement. A quick glance at Ryan, at the way he stood, at the way he carried his face, at the gear he adorned himself with, at the very impressive weapons slung over his back, was all one needed to know everything one needed to know about Ryan. And that was, keep away. Trouble. A man who not only knows how to use a gun well, but was more than willing to, at any time. He was the type that survived, and made sure that those who threatened his survival did not. And there was a name that came to mind when looking at Ryan. A simple corruption of his true name, but one that carried a lot more meaning than it. Ride On. As in, if you challenge him, he'll be the one to ride on into the sunset. And he did - he always did. Ride On's reputation didn't reveal how often Ryan barely got away, in more ways than one. It didn't tell how he had wound up being Ride On. It didn't tell why he kept going back to that shack in the middle of nowhere. All it told was that he would keep riding on (even though he had no vehicle). And that you keep the hell away from that shack. "C'mon Shan, open up already!" he shouted again, knocking on the door. If he wanted to, he could easily go in through the windows. Though he wasn't the strongest man around, he could still just go through the door, without waiting for it to be opened. But his father had taught him a few things (very few things), and one of them was that it was rude to bust down a lady's door without the intention of rebuilding it. There were two things Ride On was notoriously good at - surviving, and nearly chopping off body parts trying to build anything. There were footsteps, from the inside. They stopped at the door, just as the small wooden slit near the top slid open. A pair of eyes, green eyes, almost glowing, asked "Ryan?" "Hey Shan. Can you open up?" Ryan quickly looked back over his shoulder. Getting there had taken longer than he had expected, since some of them had decided to head out early. They didn't get far, but they did slow Ryan down. Another reason he was called Ride On was that he traveled so fast, it was like he really was riding a vehicle. After that, he had traveled even faster. But he was still worried that he wouldn't have enough time. "Sure, gimme a minute." Ryan could hear her step down off the bricks, and slide them away. Shannon was short, only barely taller than five feet. At one point, her hair had been longer than her whole body. Now, it was only about two feet long, but it would outgrow her fairly quickly. Her hair always did grow fast, Ryan remembered. It took her a while to get the board up off the rack. She was never very strong, either, and the plank was a very sturdy fifteen pounds. There wasn't much doubt in anybody's mind that Shannon was frail. Physically, at least. The door opened, and Ryan quickly brought his head back around. It was bad enough for him to be nervous - there was no reason for Shannon to be as well. Of course, she had to know why he was here. Ever since she moved out to that shack, there had been only one time when he had visited her for a different reason. She always seemed optimistic when he came over. Seemed optimistic, being the important phrase - it was hard to get inside of Shannon's head. She had spent a lot of time making sure of that. "Well, come in," she said, motioning towards the inside, smiling. "Sit down already!" Ryan always had to wait for somebody's permission before entering their home. It was another holdover, back from when he still listened to his father. He walked inside, after a very quick glance over his shoulder, and Shannon closed the door behind him. The small shed's inside consisted of three rooms - two and one half, depending on who counted. A main room, a kitchen (with stairs to the basement), and a bathroom. They were in the main room, filled with various pieces of furniture. A blue, pre-war, slightly broken couch stood against the center wall (normally), facing the right window. Depending on the time of day, it could be used as a bed, or three chairs, since it was segmented. There was also a table, a very sturdy, round, wooden table. Carl had spent months working on it, and Ryan spent months recovering from the wounds he received over it. Shannon once joked that Ryan's biggest contribution to helping build the table was turning it upside down, since the side that was originally going to be the top was covered with several of his bloodstains. Carl's natural knack for carpentry let them salvage the project, without having to look at dried blood every time they ate. The couch segments, the three of them, were spread around the table in a T formation. There had never been any need to bring a fourth chair to the table. Greg was long since gone by the time they finished it. And the frequent visitations they received were never interested in sitting. Ryan sat down at the end closest to the door, and placed his backpack on the table. The two riffles on his back, and the gun on his belt, he laid down onto the floor, as a courtesy rather than habit. Shannon sat down at the opposite end. Already on the table was a loaf of bread, and two small ears of corn. It was not much, but given the growing conditions in the wasteland, it was a good haul. Out of his backpack, Ryan pulled out two water flasks, and the pre-scorched bodies of two lizards. As he did, he realized that she had set the table - that she had known he was coming. "So you still don't know how to cook, huh?" asked Shannon, a teasing grin on her face. As usual, she was hiding something, in a way. If she knew he was coming, than she would know what was going to happen soon. It wasn't a time for laughing matters, and she knew it. "Well - no. Not really," Ryan replied, almost laughing. Joking, or laughing, or anything of the sort was not something Ryan attempted often, or with much success. Not in a while, at least. He passed one of the charred lizards and a water flask down to Shannon. As she reached for the bread, Ryan quickly glanced out the window. The window wasn't exactly clean, but from what he could see, everything was clear outside. "Do you like it?" "Hmm? What?" "The clock," Shannon said, pointing to just below the window. There was a wooden crate underneath it, the post-war equivalent of a shelf. On top of it was a small clock, which was still ticking, amazingly enough. It was dirty, the glass covering the face was cracked, and the minute hand was broken in half, making it even smaller than the hour hand. But those were the conditions that pre-war objects usually came in. Cursing himself silently for being caught (or at least nearly), Ryan said, "Yeah, it's nice. Where'd you find it?" "It was buried a few inches beneath the dirt in the garden. You know, over that spot where I could never grow anything?" "Huh. I always thought there was something strange about that." Ryan also thought it was strange that she decided to keep it directly underneath the window. It was almost a too-convenient way to avoid an awkward situation. But he dismissed the thought as just his normal paranoia, and refocused on the conversation. " - so I just pulled the twig out of the gears, and it started up again. How about that?" "How about that," Ryan agreed. He forced himself to look away from the clock - from the window - and look back at Shannon. She had already started eating, though she deliberately avoiding the charred remains of the iguana. Ryan took a few small bites from his lizard, immune to his own lack of cooking skill by now. The clock continued on, filling up and measuring the silence, to Ryan's chagrin. Tick, tick. Tick, tick. Tick, tick - "So how have things been going out here?" he asked. He took a quick swig from his flask, wishing he could have brought something less watered-down than plain water. But alcohol and business rarely mixed well for him. "Fine, fine," replied Shannon. "It didn't seem like all the corn was going to take root this time, but it worked out." It had been almost four months since he last visited, Ryan remembered. The fertilizer he had made and buried should have helped the current crop. It bordered on cannibalism, but it only bordered. "That's good." Tick, tick, tick, tick - "Did you bring anything special this time?" asked Shannon. "Well, I don't know about special, but I did find something a few days ago you might like." He reached into his backpack, and dug around. Those that tried to interfere with Ride On's survival inevitably stopped surviving themselves. And, by the rules of the wastes, the dead had no claim to their gear. Ryan also occasionally dug around caves and old city ruins, looking for vaults or anything pre-war. All he ever walked away with was trinkets - the vaults were well hidden. Still, some people liked things like those, and were more than willing to pay for them. It made money, and that kept his guns loaded and him alive. After digging around for a few seconds, he found what he had went in after. "Here," Ryan said, pulling out a book. He handed it over to Shannon, who quickly dusted off the ill-kempt cover. Ryan could read, mostly thanks to Shannon's insistent nagging when they were younger, but he didn't bother wasting time reading books. He preferred magazines; short articles, illustrations, and direct-to-the-point. Shannon, though, read everything short of the letters in Kat's Paw Magazines. She especially loved books; the longer and more complicated, the better. "I figured you might want another one of these. It didn't make any sense to me, though. Weird story. Your type of stuff." For reasons that escaped Ryan, Shannon started laughing, stopping only long enough to get out, "It's a dictionary!" "What? Who's that? I don't know authors like you do, is his stuff supposed to not make sense or something?" "It's not - it's not a story!" she said, in-between laughs. "It tells what words mean!" Ryan blinked a few times, dumbfounded. "Why would anybody have something like that?" He sat, indignant, with his arms crossed, as Shannon continued laughing. "C'mon Shan, what is it really?" "That's - that's what it is! Honest!" she said, her laughter finally subsiding. She stood up, the book in her hand. "Thank you, for the book. It'll come in handy for some of those books I have." She turned around, and walked over to the bookshelf. It was seven feet tall, and nearly filled with different books. Some she bought off of merchants, some she got from Ryan or Carl, some she just found lying around, back when she was still inside Mangil. "Do you need some help with that?" Ryan asked, noticing the only clear spots were near the top, about a foot out of Shannon's reach. "Um, could you help me move my chair?" she replied, straining and grinning at the same time. It took Shannon some time - a long time - to realize the best way to deal with her shortness wasn't to pout or be defensive whenever it was mentioned, but to laugh about it. She tried - tried - to apply that philosophy wherever she could. "Yeah, sure thing Shan." Ryan got up, and walked around to the other side of the table. The couch segment wasn't exactly heavy, but Shannon would have problems with it. Ryan easily pulled it the four feet over to the bookcase. "Thanks." She stepped up onto the chair, and reached for the top shelf. Tick, tick, tick - "Hey Shan?" Ryan asked, looking away towards the door. He figured, now was as good a time as any. "Yeah?" Shannon started pushing books aside - even on the top shelf, she was running out of room. "Did you ever think about...y'know, moving to a different town? Someplace distant from Mangil?" She stopped shifting books around, and remained still, her arms still extended. Her neck slowly arced down, until she was looking at her feet. It was a question Ryan had always meant to ask before, but never found the chance to. Or the nerve. Still, with all the time he had thought about asking it, it would have been nice if he had found a way to phrase it less bluntly. Tick, tick, tick, tick - "...sometimes," she muttered. If Ryan hadn't been standing at the base of the chair, he wouldn't have been able to hear her. "But...I don't know. Maybe...maybe Greg'll come back some day. And you might..." "But without Carl around...I don't think it would work anymore." He kept staring away at the door. Greg had left through that door. And, not long from now, he'd have to leave through there again, as well. "It could work!" she shouted. Shannon still believed in her brother's plan, most likely. "We can still do it! And besides..." she trailed off again. Ryan continued to look at the door, almost preferring what was out there to what was inside, for once. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick - "Besides - I don't see why we can't at least try. Carl...he would have wanted..." "I know all about what Carl wanted," Ryan sighed. "But this is the best that I can do. Maybe, if he was still around, we could pull it off. But even when he was...it still wasn't much of a chance to begin with." "Maybe." They continued standing, neither looking at each other, neither moving from where they stood. Tick, tick, tick, snap. It was the sound of a piece of wood breaking, outside. It was time. "Well Shannon, thank you for the meal," Ride On said, as his voice dropped an octave. He walked over to where this guns lay, and picked them up. One of the reasons Ride On continued to survive was that he had figured out how to use a hunting riffle and a shotgun together at the same time. That, and (maybe) the fact that he needed to. "It seems we have company," observed Ride On, looking out the still-open slit in the door. There were about seven, a good sized group. Last time, though, it had only been five. It wouldn't be easy. "I'll go take care of them. Goodbye." "Ryan," Shannon muttered, her voice trembling, almost cracking. "Not right now," muttered Ryan, his voice in the same state, looking down. He shook his head, straightened up, opened the door, and shut it behind him. Calm as day. Shannon collapsed down into her chair, and continued to just stare down at her feet. From the outside, she could hear voices. "We're here for the witch!" one shouted. She didn't recognize the speaker, but she had heard it before. She had heard it too many times before. "Hand her over, and - " "You're here to die," Ride On shouted, interrupting, "so shut up and die!" There was gunfire, and it began once again. --------------- More to follow...eventually. Maybe. How should I know?!